At Northern Soul, we can often be found with our nose buried in a book. As a team, we are notorious bookworms and are passionate about championing all things literary.
For some years now, we’ve been sharing our Right Good Mid-Week Read across our social media accounts. We’ve had a great response and, given how much we love reading, we’ve decided to launch a book club: Northern Soul’s Right Good Reads. Some of these books are new publications, some are titles which have waited patiently on our shelves, and some are treasured favourites. Here is the third instalment of Northern Soul’s Right Good Reads to expand your ever-growing ‘To Be Read’ pile.
So, make yourself a brew, grab some biscuits (our recommendation is a dark chocolate hobnob for extra dunk-ability) and feast your peepers on these great titles.
Writing Home by Alan Bennett (Faber & Faber)
It’s hard not to be charmed by a writer whose sole diary entry for a day in March is “Two nuns in Marks & Spencer’s studying meringues.” By the time I read this sentence by Alan Bennett in 1994, I knew who he was and liked his work. But Writing Home, a collection of his diaries, reminiscences and reviews, was a turning point, the beginning of what would become a lifelong love of Bennett’s plays, memoirs, books, TV shows, and films.
A key element of Writing Home is The Lady in the Van, a true account of the cantankerous, odorous and homeless Mary Shepherd who took up temporary residence in Bennett’s garden and stayed for 15 years. Since adapted into a play and a film, both starring Maggie Smith, The Lady in the Van is pure Bennett – a situation which no normal person would endure for so long but, what do you know, something which yielded pure writing gold.
Whether he’s musing on Thora Hird’s account of Morecambe’s only prostitute (‘Nellie Hodge, who used to take her clients down the ginnel at the back of the Hirds’ house’), recalling his first play Forty Years On, or musing on the pigs in A Private Function (‘They are supposed to be house-trained and taught to come when called, but they aren’t and they don’t. None of us mentions this.’), Bennett ensures that every page is a joy. Magic.
Wintering by Katherine May (Penguin)
I dislike winter immensely. While I’m fine with December (mostly because I’m a bit of a Christmas fanatic), I find January unbearable, and I don’t think I would be able to get out of bed if it wasn’t for my SAD alarm clock (thank goodness for artificial light). For me, January’s only redeeming quality is that the world seems to slow down a little, there are more quiet nights at home and plenty of time to read.
Wintering by Katherine May is a book about just that. But it’s also a comforting and rather moving exploration of the darker periods in life, when we can do nothing more than slow down, retreat and take care of ourselves. Far from bleak, May uses the seasons (from October through to March) to frame her own personal ‘wintering’ and show us how these uncomfortable and darker periods will, like the seasons, always ebb and flow. We only have to look to nature to see that light will always follow dark times.
I absolutely loved this book. As I immersed myself in its pages (dressed in a comfy jumper, fluffy socks and a snuggly blanket, of course – I went full hygge), I began to feel less afraid of winter and those more uncertain and challenging times in life, and I started to lean into what the season can teach us. I also really wanted to take up wild swimming, read a stack of books and go to bed early every night. A real tonic for the soul.
Journeys to Impossible Places by Simon Reeve (Hodder & Stoughton)
I first came across the British author, journalist, and documentary filmmaker Simon Reeve back in 2020, during lockdown 2.0. I was scanning the BBC iPlayer archives, looking for something to soften the edges of the restlessness I was feeling. As an avid traveller, being restricted to my own neighbourhood was beginning to feel unbearably claustrophobic. I immediately consumed his entire backlog of documentaries, following Reeve as he trekked through the Amazon and journeyed around the Indian Ocean. While it didn’t quite sate my wanderlust, it did offer me respite for a few hours.
For Christmas 2021, I was given a copy of Reeve’s latest book, Journeys to Impossible Places. Written while Reeve was also navigating life under lockdown, it’s a hefty read at more than 300 pages, but I managed to finish it quite quickly. It’s exactly what you might expect from an adventurer, chock-full of the most remarkable stories of visiting remote tribes, sneaking across borders into restricted countries and spending nights in the jungle.
But it’s also much more than that. Reeve not only shares his impossible physical journeys, he includes the ones that have marked his personal life. From fatherhood and fertility issues to marriage, moving to the countryside and depression, Reeve is wonderfully candid. He reflects on some of the pressing issues of our time such as widespread plastic pollution, climate change, the ethics of travelling, poverty, and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s an extremely thought-provoking read and while I am itching to get back out and see the world, it’s also reminded me what a privilege it is to be able to do so – and how we all need to be responsible for how we treat the planet as we move along in the world. And there’s some lovely bits about dogs.
Earthshot: How to Save Our Planet by Colin Butfield and Jonnie Hughes (John Murray Press)
So, how can we overcome that sense of being overwhelmed? And why is it so important that we do? These are just a couple of the questions addressed in Earthshot: How to save the Planet, a book by Colin Butfield and Jonnie Hughes, the creative forces behind the documentary David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet (which, for the record, made me burst into tears through sheer frustration).
Now, this book isn’t an antidote to climate anxiety – that can only be quelled by direct action, governmental policy changes, and tangible results. But its optimistic tone is appealing. And, as the book argues, it’s this almost stubborn optimism that is needed to combat the climate crisis.
Earthshot offers a glimpse of what life could look like if we harness our collective talents for the greater good of the planet, rather than continuing to mindlessly plunder the Earth for profit. I feel inspired and galvanised by the individuals and organisations that appear in the book, and, at a time where I’ve been feeling quite downhearted about our ability, or even our desire, to make the necessary changes to our lives, that’s something worth celebrating.
Read our full review here.
Why Karen Carpenter Matters by Karen Tongson (Faber)
It’s made painfully apparent that, of the two siblings, it was Karen Carpenter who was made to bear the brunt of the public’s ambivalent scrutiny, she herself ruefully observing that “I was the only girl in the group, so they were looking at me”. Moreover, once she was prised away from her beloved drums, “there was nothing to hold on to, nothing to hide behind”. She was exposed. With nothing to cling to, perhaps she held fast to what she could control – herself. Even her solo LP, recorded while her brother was otherwise occupied with detoxifying from quaaludes, was ignominiously shelved, damned by Richard for “stealing The Carpenters’ sound” and for having the temerity, for once, to use her own voice without his imprimatur.
Karen Tongson sees beats of her own story in Karen Carpenter’s desperate striving for some degree of a normalcy she was not made for, and there’s a sense of compassion and, maybe, anger in her delineation of the woman who was never once allowed to define herself, except in relation to her brother, her mother or disaster of a husband. Yet it’s arguably that pop unfashionability, that personal out of placeness, that lends The Carpenters (and Karen’s contralto in particular) their timelessness.
Like the exquisite yearning in a pop song, a biography is also a declaration of love, and this, at the last, is why Why Karen Carpenter Matters matters. The ‘lead sister’ who died before her time of what was then poorly understood as ‘the slimmer’s’ disease’, an illness which still has the highest mortality of any mental health diagnosis, has been the glass through which Tongson has been able to discern the shape of herself. In doing so, she has written a volume worthy of being held up to Superstar or Goodbye to Love. This is a book that others may see their own reflections in.
Read Desmond Bullen’s full review here.
The Bees by Laline Paull (HarperCollins)
What makes a good book? One that compels you to keep turning the pages until the early hours? A novel that moves and affects you? Or something you know you’ll never forget? The Bees by Laline Paull manages to do all three.
A dystopia set in a beehive, Paull’s debut changed the way I see the world. I cried, I laughed, I held my breath as Flora 717, a worker bee with issues, took charge of her pre-determined life and changed its course. I spent the entire book rooting for Flora while marvelling at Paull’s depictions of the architectural beauty of the hive and the ruthlessness at its heart.
For a book as unique as this it’s difficult to pin it to a particular genre. There are echoes of Animal Farm and The Handmaid’s Tale but The Bees is very much its own beast. The last time I admired such ingenuity was reading The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Paull’s towering achievement is a singular book and a singular experience, and I guarantee that you’ll never look at bees in the same way again.
The Hunt and the Kill by Holly Watt (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Throughout The Hunt and the Kill there’s a palpable sense that much of what’s on the page isn’t fiction.
An investigative journalist who worked at a number of national newspapers, author Holly Watt has clearly and cleverly drawn on her wealth of experience in her portrayal of Casey Benedict, an ambitious young undercover hack who races around the world in search of the next big exposé, never forgetting her moral centre and often leaving her heart on her sleeve. The Hunt and the Kill is the third in the series and somehow manages to combine a breathless and twisty-turny pace with a meditation on the looming threat of antibiotic-resistant infections. And if you’re looking for an uncannily accurate picture of what really goes in a newsroom, I’ve rarely seen it drawn better than here.
Daring to Hope: A Memoir of the 1970s by Sheila Rowbotham (Verso)
In my life, I’ve had badges of honour and labels of failure, and both have defined me by my sex. But what this book offers is a collection of references to people I want to learn more about. I’m grateful to discover that I am part of this sisterhood, and that women with similar experiences once talked in gentle, encouraging and yet passionate groups and wanted to work out how to bring every woman up.
It’s something that Sheila Rowbotham feels has been suffocated in the decades that followed the 70s. “We tend to take what we were doing in the 1970s for granted as the norm, but feel often glum at the layer upon layer of conservatism that came about in the decades in between. So it is precious indeed to know that there are others who will keep on,” she says.
I don’t know any woman right now whose personal life and political feelings aren’t in constant flux. Rowbotham once held a placard exclaiming that “we want the moon” because, as her new memoir reminds us, we must expect, and we all absolutely deserve, the moon.
Read Cathy Crabb’s full review here.
The Joy of Small Things by Hannah Jane Parkinson (Guardian Faber Publishing)
I think that contentment is the crux of this collection by Hannah Jane Parkinson. Too often we’re caught up in ‘Big Picture’ thinking. We believe that we’ll finally be happy when we get the job, the relationship, the car or the house. In skipping ahead to the future, we often miss out on the present and all the wonderfully monotonous and inconsequential things that bring us comfort and delight. Dogs would certainly be high on my list, alongside cooking elaborate veggie feasts, the colour of autumn leaves, Christmas, roasted marshmallows when the edges go all crisp and gooey, bubble baths, and charity shops.
The collection includes numerous noteworthy entries. The way Parkinson writes about clean bedding (“Fresh bedding: clean, taut sheets, plumped pillows, the crinkle of a rejuvenated duvet cover.”) makes me want to change my own bedding and snuggle underneath sheets fresh from the tumble dryer. And I’ve never related more to a line in a book than “cover versions are like white wines: they’re either very good or horrid”.
Other standout columns include one about pockets (“Pockets are a feminist issue. They are a class issue.”), a Sunday roast (“Of course, as with the best meal, the joy of a Sunday roast isn’t merely about what is on one’s plate. It’s the act of gathering, and the company one shares.”), and the sheer pleasure of cancelled plans (“This is where, if luck is on your side, a truly glorious reprieve is granted: the thing you do not want to do is cancelled. It is the social life equivalent of gearing up to dump a partner only for them to get in first.”).
The idea is that focusing on small pleasures has a cumulative effect. Whether it’s Parkinson’s intention or not, The Joy of Small Things could surely be considered a credo to live by.
Read our full review here.
The House With Two Letter-Boxes by Janet H. Swinney (Fly on the Wall Press)
In The House with Two Letter-Boxes by Janet H. Swinney, violence, characteristically male, is ingrained across the generations, like coal dust worked into a miner’s veins. More insidiously, like mines of a different kind, it’s embedded close to the surface, waiting on a hair trigger for the wrong word to be said, the wrong look to be given, to excuse its detonation. Hemmed in by the tripwire of masculine anger on the one front, and feminine censure on the other, the breathing spaces for resistance are few. In the opening story of the collection, Slipping The Cable, Ida finds both respite and eventual release from the captivity of Elliot, her captivating other half, via knitting.
If violence is ever near to hand, so is sexuality. The women in these stories chafe constantly against the morality of the preceding generation. Ida’s passions cloud her judgement, in part because she has never been taught to expect them. Swinney’s protagonists have the depth and fleshiness that D.H. Lawrence, writing about similar communities around his native Nottingham, struggled to imbue in his own female characters, tending instead to divide them reductively into ideals of virginity or sexuality. The women in these stories, by contrast, ring true.
As do the men. For every Elliott, tightly wound and primed to explode, there is a Norman, the Boo Radley-like hero of Tenterhooks, who, while his body is disfigured and his presence shunned, nonetheless maintains an empathetic tenderness of heart.
Read Desmond Bullen’s full review here.
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (Transworld)
Notes from a Small Island put Bill Bryson on the map in more ways than one. First published in 1995, it quickly asserted itself as a near perfect piece of travel writing, going on to become a bestseller and, I suspect, hasn’t been out of print since.
When Bryson decided to embark on a farewell tour of Britain before returning to his native US for a few years, he retained the outsider’s perspective, all the better to dissect why he’d made the country his home.
From the outset, you know you’re in safe hands. He reflects on his first visit to England back in 1973 and a boarding house run by ‘a formidable creature of late middle years called Mrs Smegma’. It’s not an auspicious start to his time in the UK, with Bryson wondering ‘just what the f*ck is a counterpane’ in a ‘small, unhappy voice’. But, as any good author knows, adversity makes the best copy. And so it is with Bryson. I laughed like a drain reading this book, often alarming people sat near me on the bus. A review in The Times sums it up better than most: ‘Not a book that should be read in public, for fear of emitting loud snorts.’ Ne’er a truer word spoken.